Let’s face it, it’s nearly impossible to survive in modern society without using technology. Our smartphones have so quickly gone from being something we use in our everyday lives, to something we rely on to get through every day. Apps and devices make our lives way easier, but it’s becoming difficult to overlook the detrimental effects of having a smartphone glued to your hand, begging you to check it every ten minutes.
Experts have agreed that addiction to smartphones is a very real threat, even comparing it to America’s obesity epidemic. The reaction our brains have to the dopamine released by that Instagram like or that lit up screen is exactly the same as the reaction they have to cocaine. The sudden flood of happy hormones reinforces the behaviour that caused it, and in turn leads to addiction (even in those people who proclaim “but I don’t have an addictive personality, I can quit any time”).
And there’s no denying that our on-screen interactions have affected the way we interact with our fellow humans in real life. It hasn’t reached the point where we’re starting to double tap our friends on the forehead when we want to compliment their outfit (YET), but we’re often more distracted and less present when spending time with our loved ones.
So, what can be done about it? Here are some small steps you can take to break addictive smartphone habits (even if you’re still denying that you have them).
1. (Ironically) install a detox app
For those who are really dependent on their devices, this may be the easiest first step. You get to use an app to STOP you from using other apps! Genius, isn’t it? An app called Forest, for example, allows you to plant an adorable digital tree, and in the time is takes to grow you won’t be able to use your phone to scroll mindlessly through your social feeds. You’ll be forced to do something productive! This is great for when you need a certain amount of time to complete a task, or when you just want to enjoy dinner with a friend with fewer digital distractions.
2. Use airplane mode, or turn off the wi-fi
This is another super easy one (so really, there’s no excuse not to try it). Just cut your connection to the noisy world of the internet for a little while to stop the notifications from lighting up your screen and pulling your attention away from your real-world task. Alternatively, put your phone on mute and leave it in another room, where the vibrations can’t make your already shrinking attention span even shorter. Try turning off your notifications for just one day, and see how it affects your productivity and stress levels.
3. Switch your phone off at meal times
Whether you’re eating with friends, family, or all alone at home, focusing on your food and not your inbox can make it tastier and more enjoyable. Eating mindfully not only helps for weight control, but gives you the chance to appreciate the flavours in your food a lot more. If you’re in company, it can help you appreciate your friend a lot more too (or at least make them feel more appreciated because your attention isn’t on your whatsapp)! There’s no harm in taking that photo of your food before you eat, but once you lift your fork, try to keep your phone out of the picture.
4. Delete or re-organize apps
Put particularly distracting apps, the kind you open without even thinking about it and then lose track of time scrolling through, in a folder far away from your home screen. This will ensure than the act of opening those apps is an intentional and controlled one. Delete apps that are unnecessary, or that you rarely use, so those don’t become new crutches now that your main addictions are hidden out of site.
5. “go dark” before bed time
If your bed time is usually 11pm, put your devices off (or on airplane mode if that’s too intense) half an hour earlier. Start small and work your way up until you’re not using your tech for an hour or ninety minutes before bed. Try increasing it at ten-minute intervals and see how it goes. Bonus: This will also improve the quality of your sleep! Expert level challenge: go dark for a whole day once a week. See if this makes a difference to your stress levels.
Additional tip: it’s great to track your attempts and progress on paper, to see the difference it’s making to your mental wellbeing, your sleep, or your productivity. This also makes it easy if you want to scale it up later. Start small and work your way up. Rushing and putting pressure on yourself only makes it harder to break the addiction, as you’ll feel more prone to give up and numb the pain with an Instagram binge after the slightest setback. Make it easy for yourself and take baby steps.
Good luck on your digital detox journey!
A lot of the ideas in this article were taken from a book called Kaizen: The Japanese Method for Transforming Habits One Small Step at a Time by Sarah Harvey. It’s a wonderful read. Check it out if you’re looking to change your habits, reduce stress and improve general happiness and wellbeing.